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How we can help Maine children develop the social skills they need to thrive

Posted July 17, 2017, at 8:45 a.m.

With the appropriate preparation today, Maine’s children can come of age ready to participate successfully in society. While the focus in education is generally on cognitive skills, our youngest children also need to learn and practice the necessary social and emotional skills to thrive not just in school, but also on the playground and, later in life, as active and contributing members of our state.

For the past two years, the Maine Children’s Growth Council has been working with a diverse group of experts and stakeholders to better understand the social and emotional learning and development of Maine’s young children that takes place in early care and education settings. The Legislature initiated this effort in response to anecdotal reports of a concerning trend in Maine and across the country: an increase in the number of children with significant social and emotional skill deficits in these important early years.

Research consistently shows that from birth to age 5 is when children develop the foundation for interpersonal skills that will determine their success later in life. These skills include regulating behavior, expressing emotions such as anger and frustration in positive ways, working well with others, making friends and participating in group activities. Children learn from their teachers and from each other. They learn by practicing sharing and playing within a group.

So our statewide team surveyed early care and education teachers from across the state who work with young children. The results we found were astonishing.

Teachers and caregivers are seeing more and more of our youngest children with severe social and emotional deficits, and more interruptions to the play and learning that take place within early childhood programs. Ninety-two percent of teachers participating in the survey reported having at least one child with significant challenges. On average, teachers reported having five children who struggle with early social and emotional skills. These are not occasional tantrums or outbursts that any child may experience, but ongoing struggles to be a productive part of the group.

Teachers and caregivers told us overwhelmingly that they want more training to help these children learn those important social and emotional skills. But training alone won’t change behavior. It is also critical to have mentors to help educators’ develop strategies to address a child’s behavior, and build educators’ toolkits to change negative behavior into a positive learning experience.

After reviewing the survey results and evidence-based practices, we believe the best step forward is to implement a voluntary, statewide early childhood consultation program, which is what we reported to the Legislature.

A consultation program works like this: a teacher or caregiver caring for a child with social emotional deficits invites an early childhood expert to visit their program. The expert consults with the child’s parents and staff to develop strategies for the child and other kids in the program. These strategies may be as simple as changing the activity spaces in the room, or may entail working on how to address a child’s needs in a totally different way that diffuses negative behavior.

Early childhood consultation programs are already in place in some areas of Maine and other states, and they are producing great results. Devising a program for the whole state that builds upon our specific strengths and addresses our unique challenges would change the trajectory for many of our kids.

An early care program director summed it up best when talking about her experience with an early childhood consultant: “Where teachers would have been burnt out, they are digging deeper into their practice. Where children would have been abandoned because of their behavior, they are receiving loving care from a primary educator. Where parents would have been asked to leave a program, we are inviting them in to spend more time with us. Parents don’t feel blamed, teachers feel supported and the children are getting what they actually need, a strong attachment in their first years of life.”

If we help children build a strong foundation early in life, we lay the groundwork for their success in school, and beyond. An early childhood consultation program is an integral part of that success.

Peter Lindsay and Newell Augur are co-chairs of the Maine Children’s Growth Council and the Ad Hoc Committee that completed the Maine Social and Emotional Learning & Development Project.

 

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